Buoyed by Innovation

New Aquatic Design Trends Offer a Sea of Options

By Chris Gelbach

In a time of strained budgets and increasing customer expectations, innovations in aquatic design are giving recreation managers a variety of ways to reduce their operating costs and attract a broader customer base. Buoyed by new technologies, new features and an ever-growing focus on recreation, aquatic centers are creating offerings that are more successful both in revenue generation and in reaching target demographics.

Making a Splash

As municipalities look to provide recreational opportunities with lower budgets and minimal staffing requirements, perhaps no aquatic feature has gathered more momentum than splashpads. "We're definitely seeing a much bigger trend toward every park wanting a splashpad feature," said Corry Cloward, principal of the Provo, Utah-based aquatic design and engineering firm Cloward H2O.

Splashpads are being built larger, with more variety in design, and are being incorporated into the overall park design more elegantly than the circular cutouts of yesteryear. "More and more, we're seeing the landscape architect make it a real architectural feature of a park or space and incorporating the whole theme of the park there," said Cloward.

Some higher-end splashpad applications are even using variable frequency drive technology to allow for changeable spray heights. "We're working on several interactive fountains right now where during the day, it's a playground, and during the evening it's a water show with music, lights and sound," said Randy Medioroz, principal for Aquatic Design Group, an aquatic engineering and design firm based in Carlsbad, Calif. During the day, the sprays are kept at a height of 4 to 6 feet appropriate for children to play in; at night, the pump is ramped up for a water show, the sprays launching as high as 20 or 30 feet.

"Splashpads make a lot of sense in civic spaces, particularly urban areas where land is at a premium and it's tough to build an aquatic center, but you can entertain a lot of kids," said Mendioroz.

Using secure wireless Internet, it's also possible to set up the interactive fountain to be operated via iPhone or iPad with the proper URL and password. "You can program from a number of different scenes that are preprogrammed with different water effects, lighting and ambient sound, so you can mix up the look and feel of the place quite dramatically," Mendioroz said.

And now, these technologies are getting within reach of more facilities. "There have been some significant leaps forward in LED lighting, and we can get some of the choreography and lighting at market-friendly prices," Cloward said. "What used to be specialized is now commodity."

But while some splashpad costs are coming down, they remain aquatic facilities, not playgrounds. They still require a certified pool operator to run the filtration system, result in a power bill, are subject to the pool code, and need a mechanical space to hide the pumps and filters. "None of these things are really daunting requirements, but it's really surprising how many municipalities are caught off guard by them," Cloward said.

In a larger aquatic center project, these operational concerns are often minimized by putting the splashpad near the pool. "They'll do an indoor pool or two, and have an outdoor patio or plaza area that can be accessed from the pool area, so kids can go out and play on the spray pad and you don't need a guard there. Operationally, that works great," said Joel Roderick, project designer for Water Technology Inc., an aquatic design firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis.

Recreation for All

In the expansion of a long-term trend, more and more aquatic facilities are being built to balance recreation with competitive elements. "Usually we'd have to drag the cities kicking and screaming into the recreation side of things because it's tougher from a maintenance and operations standpoint," said Mendioroz. "But now we're preaching to the converted, and parks and recreation folks are embracing the idea that there should be at least as many square feet of recreation programming as competitive programming."

California's Riverside County Parks district did this recently with its Jurupa Aquatic Center, which is divided into two sections: a 35-meter by 25-yard competition pool, and The Cove Waterpark, which includes a splash playground, continuous river, slide tower and a surf machine.

According to Kyla Brown, parks and recreation chief for Riverside County Parks, the competition pool addresses a previous lack of aquatics programs and public pool facilities in the area. Since opening, the competition pool has been jam-packed. "The high schools have taken over almost every available hour for swimming, and we've got a couple of club teams, as well," said Brown.

Despite this fact, the pool faces an issue common even to the busiest competition pools. "Competition pools are an important part of an aquatic center, but I am personally not familiar with one that pays for itself," said Cloward. "They're always subsidized."

When the Jurupa facility, created in partnership with a nearby school district, was in the planning stages, feasibility studies indicated that the competition pool alone might not be viable to operate over time. "And the answer was the waterpark portion," Brown said. "In terms of revenue generation, it recovers its full cost and then some." The gate receipts from people who want the waterpark experience are then used to help offset the costs of the community programming on the competition pool side.

That's not to say that the waterpark isn't used for community activities. Instead, in an example of another burgeoning trend, the use of the recreation side in off-peak hours is being maximized through community engagement and programming. This is particularly important for The Cove, which caters to families with young children and gets 75 percent of its business from patrons with season passes.

"We focus on keeping it new and exciting for our customers through the soft services and programming," said Brown. "Special events, special activities, programs geared toward youth and life skill development—other benefits you wouldn't typically get at your recreational waterpark."

Examples of programming that takes place in the waterpark include a junior lifeguarding program, adaptive swim lessons, water walking for seniors in the continuous river, water rescue courses for park rangers and special events, such as a polar bear plunge that takes place over the holidays.

Most designers consider the focus on young families that The Cove has selected as a solid approach for most municipalities launching a waterpark. "Unless you're going to put in some of the bigger rides, your target is not teenagers," said Cloward. "You still have to think of something for them to do, because otherwise they'll get in the way. But in terms of who's driving gate receipts, it's 12 and under. And the kids' pool has become the thing that's really being amped up."

According to Cloward, this can be accomplished using premanufactured play structures, or ones that are built more into the landscape. "But it's got to be a multilevel, multiactivity type of thing," he said. "A little shallow wading pool isn't worth the money."

For teens, competitive programs hold appeal, as do skill-based activities, such as the surf machine at The Cove. "If one thing seems to be trickling down from the waterpark market, it's a skill-based attraction," said Roderick. "The one that's coming down more and more is surfing. A FlowRider is not a high-capacity ride, but it's something they will come back to as they learn that skill, and they have to come back to the facility to do it."

This kind of amenity does not take up a lot of real estate, but can cost almost as much as having another pool, according to Roderick. And while it can't accommodate many riders, it does produce retail and spectator appeal. "People come to watch it, they're buying food, they're buying drinks, they may buy a T-shirt," said Roderick. At The Cove, for example, the facility last summer hosted some of the world's best flowboarders as a stop on the FLOW Tour.

Addition Without Subtraction

Wet climbing walls situated poolside so climbers can fall back into the water are also becoming more and more popular as a skill-based amenity to attract the tween and teen demographic. They are additionally part of the growing trend to add recreational elements that make competition pools more versatile without negatively affecting existing programming.

"Climbing walls at the side of the pool don't take up a lot of space," said Roderick. "Facilities can usually even retrofit those in and not affect their existing program, so they're something that managers can add to the facility if they don't have a lot of money to add some interest back to the pool."

Other recreational elements are also being added to traditional competition pools in a strategically unobtrusive way to add versatility without compromising performance. "At a couple of YMCAs that we're doing now," said Roderick, "the water features don't take up any space in the pool because we either hang them on the ceiling, or we put them on the deck and they cantilever over into the pool." This adds recreation appeal when they're in use, and visual interest at all times without negatively affecting the program space when they're not on.

This trend is being further propelled by the fact that these recreational features for competition pools are becoming more affordable than ever before. "Instead of having a cement pond, for very similar budgets you can put some organic feel to it and get some real design and make it a whole lot more fun," Cloward said. He noted that the most common features being added—without affecting the competition programming element—include small play structures, smaller waterslides, splash decks for tots, zero entries and lazy rivers, sometimes with small wave generators. "You say waves to somebody and most people immediately think of a great big wave pool, and you don't have to do that," said Cloward. "You still need a zero-entry beach to break out onto, but we can put waves in a fairly small pool."

Leisure Stretches Across Markets

Recreation has increasingly become the focus at the university level, as well. "Zip lines, large hydrotherapy spas with lots of artificial rockwork, plants—they're literally like resort hotels," Mendioroz said. "Students are like the rest of the population. Two to 5 percent of them are diehard lap and fitness swimmers, and the rest want to have fun." And they want to get their homework done at poolside, so Wi-Fi is also becoming a must.

Resort hotels have also embraced the trend, adding wave pools, lazy rivers, waterslides and wet playgrounds. "They're trying to attract families to do an extended stay and even in some cases, you have to book three days if you want to book a weekend," Mendioroz said.

While the trend for new resorts has slowed, adding these elements in renovations has become critical as resorts recognize the need raise the bar to compete with their showcase brochure attraction. "We just worked on a project for a hotel in Florida where they figure that they've been losing 30 to 40 percent of their capturable revenue because they don't have a good pool amenity," said Cloward. "The new one will have a river, some new slides, waterfalls and spray features, and it's just a much more active space, along with some serene adult areas."

Even municipal facilities are focused on using these kinds of elements to extend patron stays. Riverside County Parks has added splashpads to some of its campgrounds to help encourage weekend stays. And the new waterpark and 50-meter competition pool it is building in Perris, Calif., will be located near a Big League Dreams sports facility, and the district is considering placing a campground in the area too. "The idea is to create a destination," Brown said. "If they're going to a sports tournament with their kids, they can come and recreate during their breaks or spend the night at the campground, and spend the day at the pool the next day."

Wellness Doing Well

On the flip side of the recreation trend is the emergence of more wellness-focused aquatic facilities incorporating warmer water for water aerobics in addition to in-water treadmills. Faced with extensive competition from other lap pool amenities, some health and fitness centers are finding a niche by making the move toward water therapy in conjunction with local hospitals.

"It's an emerging trend we see, especially as the baby boomers age," Mendioroz said. "These facilities are scarcer than hen's teeth, and we see them fully booked out if they want to do the marketing and work with local hospitals and clinics."

Technology for Savings and Appeal

Technological advancements are also allowing facilities to generate more interest in existing facilities without a need for additional real estate or significant expense. For instance, virtual trainers can be installed that use LED lighting in a long strip at the bottom of a pool lane to allow swimmers to program the lights to race against their best time—or Michael Phelps's—by following the moving light.

And LED lights are being added more often to slides, as well as to demark the underwater boundaries on water polo courts, which are being built in more West Coast facilities as the sport grows in popularity. "That system isn't outside the price range of a community center, and I would imagine it is going to become more and more standard," Roderick said.

Existing technologies to enhance energy efficiency and clean air and water are also gaining momentum, from variable frequency drives to regenerative DE filters, more efficient pool heaters, ultraviolet pool systems and automated water chemistry controllers.

And in the nation's warmest regions, thermal solar has become increasingly cost-effective. "Now, with natural gas hovering around a dollar a therm and higher, it's about a 4-to-6-year payback for solar," said Mendioroz, who noted that the biggest challenge is often finding enough surface area to place the panels, because you need about 80 percent of the surface area of the pool.

"In a lot of these aquatic facilities, the support buildings are not that big," he said. "We're doing a project for the City of Las Vegas where we're putting shade structures in the parking lot. It makes a lot of sense there, because it's really, really hot—and we can rack the solar panels to those shade structures."

Software analysis can also show pool operators how much they'd save through the use of thermal blankets. "They will save you almost 40 percent of your heating costs for an outdoor pool, because most of your heat evaporates in the evening when it's colder," Mendioroz said. "For an indoor pool, you can save about 15 to 20 percent of your heating costs and you're preserving your building because you don't have that water evaporation getting into the structures."

Technologies can also give operators more flexibility in how they use their facilities to provide more programming opportunities. In Canada, Roderick is seeing 50-meter pools with moveable floors and bulkheads. The bulkhead enables the pool to be divided into two different spaces with different water temperatures, so one part can become a warm-water recreation pool and another a cold-water fitness pool. The perforated moveable floor can be adjusted to between zero to 2 meters deep. "They can lower it to 2 feet for swim lessons, or to 5 feet and do aerobics—whatever they want," he said.

Whatever they want, and whatever the budget, the latest aquatic design trends are giving facility managers an array of new ways to stay afloat—and to make a splash with patrons through enhanced amenities and programming.

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